John Cleese On How to Be Creative….

Do you remember John Cleese?  This video from 1991, which I watched last night instead of writing a post, features him and his thoughts on creativity. Cleese, you may remember is famous for his work with Monty Python, and if you can, watch the whole video. It’s worthwhile not just for his delivery, but also for his practical advice. And after all, who doesn’t want to be a bit more creative?

If you only have 10 minutes, here he is again in 2009 brushing up the theme.

Cleese describes creativity not as talent, but a modus operandi. He distinguishes between two modes of operation.

First, is the closed mode, which is our normal daily attitude, which repesents work, errands, family, friends and social media all of which are simultaneously competing for our attention.

The second is the open mode in which exploration is the main objective and goal. Kids call it playtime, the  mode where creativity blossoms. To implement a new idea or concept, both modes are necessary. Once a creative thought or insight occurs the open state has to give way to the closed one to implement the new idea or concept without hesitation or doubt.

To enter the open mode can be difficult. Life usually get in the way.

According to Cleese there are 5 elements to help set the stage for the open mode:

1. Creating space: Make room (physical and mental) to explore. Cleese calls it setting up a space/time oasis.

2. Time (quantitative) : Set aside an hour and half or so with unobstructed time. No phone, no email, no interruptions. There needs to be a clear separation between your daily tasks and “open mode time”. Nobody gets creative in front of a computer.

3. Time (qualitative): Wait for the mind to calm down (which can take up to 30 minutes or longer you may know this from meditation or trying to get to sleep at night) and stop your mind’s chattering, if that’s possible. It can be hard in the beginning, but the mind does get quiet faster over time. Think about something interesting like two juxtaposed concepts and explore how they connect. Ponder until your time is running out. If something occurs, great, if not, don’t worry. Wait or sleep over it.

Good ideas often need time to “incubate” below the threshold of awareness. Cleese also warns off getting get rid of the discomfort of not having an answer/solution right away. He says that the most creative people are prepared to tolerate the discomfort of “not knowing” longer than other people. In other words, don’t grab the first creative idea or insight that comes to mind. Wait on it and even more creative ideas could follow. I thought that this is crucial.

4. Confidence: Don’t let the fear of failure get into the way. Don’t expect anything to happen. Play and experiment without aiming for a result. I find that the hard one. We are all taught to view “play time” as losing, or worse wasting time and are always concerned with setting and reaching goals.

5. Humor: Humor is a fast way to change from the closed mode into the open one.


The lecture is peppered with Cleese’s usual humor and the end memorable when he explains how and why creative people pose a threat to the establishment.

I will take his advice to heart this week and spend less time in front of the computer and more in my own space/time sanctuary.

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10 Responses to “John Cleese On How to Be Creative….”

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  1. Kathryn says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I plan to sit down and watch it tonight with my husband. We both love John Cleese and could both use a little creative pep talk in our own work. Such a creative mind Cleese has!

  2. Stefania says:

    Es ist dies ein sehr interessantes Thema und ein sehr weites darueberhinaus, die Kreativitaet und vielleicht gibt es letztendlich soviele Annaeherungsversuche an ihre Essenz wie es kreative Menschen gibt, unzaehlige, und Gott sei Dank!!
    auch ich verruche immer wieder hinter die Sache und auf Ihnen Grund zu kommen, und ich habe fuer mich persoenlich entdeckt, dass sie fuer mich wie eine Droge funktioniert, oder zumindest stelle ich mir vor, dass Drogen solche Wirkungen aufweisen. Wenn ich es schaffe, sie zu “entfesseln” , so tribù sie den Adrenalinspiegel in die Hoehe, Zeit und Raum verlieren ihre eingrenzende Bedeutung. um in ihr Fahrwasser zu gelangen gibt es fuer mich nur eines: ich muss eine VISION haben, das mag hochtrabend klingen, aber es ist genau dies, ich muss vor meinen inneren Auge eine Vorstellung von einem Endstadium haben. Nicht immer entspricht das Ziel der Vision, aber Leitfaden ist sie, und wenn dieser “Zustand ” eintritt, weissen die Haende, was es zu tun gibt…
    Deswegen auch die Worte von Renzo Piano im Titel meines Blogs…

  3. Stefania says:

    Oh mann, entschuldige die vielen Tippfehler, ich gebe die Schuld mal meinem I pad ;)

  4. suschna says:

    Listening to smart an funny people ‘s ideas about creativity is one of my favorites too, but then i think, I should not spend too much time on that. I doesn’t replace being creative! So I took the 10 minutes lecture and liked it, might even listen to the longer speech, he is very entertaining.
    Wenn du dann noch mehr Zeit mit dem Zuhören bei klugen Männern verbringen willst, empfehle ich dieses Interview mit Philip Roth, lief gestern abend auf Arte. Darin spielt das Thema auch eine große Rolle.–6987646.html

  5. Kathrin says:

    Really hope you liked it!

  6. susana says:

    Gracias por describir el video que esta en ingles y no tengo forma de traducirlo .Pero puedo traducir sus palabras .Cariños.

  7. k says:

    great ideas from a very clever man. although i have to laugh about “nobody gets creative in front of a computer”. while i understand the point, as a graphic designer it is generally my job to get creative in front a computer. :) but all the more reason to get away from it in my off time.

  8. Wonderful!
    simply wonderful!
    I could not agree with you more!
    Love Cleese BTW, always have…all one needs to say to make me laugh is “Fawlty Tower”

    That “playtime” has been an essential part of my happiness for several years now. I can’t imagine living well without it!

    Thank You~


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